The Gift of History

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On a brisk afternoon in late November I walked from the United States Capitol Building to the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History & Culture in Washington D.C. My legs were a bit sore having already spent a long morning on my feet taking pictures of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. Just arrived from its home in the Payette National Forest near McCall, Idaho the People’s Tree had made a long journey of more than 3,800 miles over four weeks of travel to receive a hero’s welcome from a grateful nation. This 80-foot Engleman Spruce, a gift to and from the American people, will soon be decorated with over 18,000 ornaments made by the children of its native state and set alight for all the world to enjoy at the start of the holiday season. It was my privilege to follow along and tell its story in a series of photographs. So in a victory lap of sorts I strode along the streets of the Capital City to quietly reflect on just how far we’ve come.

Newly opened just a few weeks earlier, the Museum of African-American History & Culture is an impressive feature just off the National Mall across from the George Washington Monument. I got there about an hour before it was going to close for the day and I was informed that available tickets had likely run out. Though admission is free the many docents at the entrance manage the thronging crowds by handing out a limited number of passes each day. “Ask around the corner,” a security officer said with a smile. “If there’re any left they’ll let you know.”

On the other side of the building I approached a pleasant woman wearing glasses dressed in a yellow safety vest over a puffy coat bundled against the chill. “Is it just you?” she asked. When I nodded yes she said with a wink, “Go on in. I got you.”

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Psyched with good fortune I thanked her and I half-skipped past the black tape barricade. This massive building loomed before me, a marvelous spectacle of human achievement and ingenuity. Like an inverted pyramid sculpted from polished stones and intricately woven with a lattice of bronze florets, the museum, designed by architect David Adjaye, stands proudly among its memorial neighbors. Unique in presentation its architecture beautifully compliments the adjacent structures and statuaries in a subtle mingling of ancient ancestry and modern inclinations toward a progressive future. Demonstratively dark by design it rises up in deliberate contrast to the white marble monuments which surround it.

“The bronze-colored filigree panels that create the museum’s façade pay homage to the exquisite craftsmanship of enslaved and free African American artisans and metalworkers in Charleston and New Orleans,” a description reads inside. “The filigree’s open weave helps to moderate the amount of light and heat entering the building. The luminescent bronze color brings new hues to the National Mall and works to monumentalize African American experiences.”

jtp20161129-3The Smithsonian Museum of African American History puts into perspective the greatest atrocities of our past while celebrating the triumphs of our common legacy. The long narrative of our great nation too often ignores the contributions of those who built it. Made possible by the forced labor of enslaved Africans the financial and cultural wealth of America was created by a population of men and women held in bondage due exclusively to the color of their skin. Laying bare the tragic circumstances of our past, each exhibit confronts the contradiction of a nation based on the idea that all men are created equal but whose laws and customs provide the privileges of freedom and liberty to some but not to others.jtp20161129-6

Beginning at levels of the museum below ground each exhibit tells the story of black people from the era of slavery to freedom, or emancipation, from the year 1400 through 1877. Artifacts and printed documents illustrate the diaspora of the African slave trade, the colonization of North America, the Revolutionary War and the War between the States. At every turn people of color played critical roles in creating our nation and bringing it together again when it was once divided. Rising up through each floor the galleries of history ascend and allow to unfold the horrors of segregation from 1876 to 1968. From the darkness of slavery came the emergence of Jim Crow laws, White Supremacist organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and sweeping acts of inequity from segregated housing and schools to voting rights suppression and judicial bias.

But with the passage time there can be seen in every photograph, painting, sculpture or film the steady flow of progress as racially motivated violence and discrimination slowly yields to fulfill the promise of the American dream. The upper levels of the museum celebrate “A Changing America: 1968 and beyond”. Continuing expansion of civil rights and protections under the law open the way to advances in areas of modern culture from the arts and music to sports, business and politics. The way forward seems paved with opportunities to grow further despite the continuing hardships imposed by racial divisions that still remain to this day. But the enduring legacy of our great history and courageous struggle for more than 600 years engenders a profound spirit of great hope for the future. We have indeed come a long way and we have further yet to go.

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As I was leaving the final exhibition I walked slowly along with the thinning crowd. As the museum was about to close I overheard a white woman comment to her companion. “It’s just so sad,” she said on the verge of tears. Walking past I looked her right in the eye and smiled broadly. Shaking my head, pitying her lack of comprehension I walked way still grinning. “This museum, this place,” I thought to myself, “has made me more proud and happier than I could have ever imagined.” And for this gift of history, heritage and legacy I am truly grateful. If not for the dedication and sacrifice of my ancestors and the many who came before me I would never have had the opportunity to travel freely across this great country, to share the magic of a National Forest Christmas Tree and make a little African American history everyday.

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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